Favourite movie soundtracks – The John Williams specials

From 1975 to 1981, John Williams produced 5 of the most memorable scores in modern Hollywood. The scores were all written for a full orchestra and along with his previous work for The Tower Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake, he defined the sound of the 1970’s blockbuster, before synthesizers and electronics began to dominate ‘80s film scores. Many of his themes are firmly ingrained in pop culture and are frequently played at awards shows, sporting events and parodied.

In his first collaboration with Steven Spielberg he created the famous two-note score for Jaws, which went on to win the Oscar for best score. The mechanical sharks created for the shooting frequently malfunctioned in the water, forcing Spielberg to improvise and only hint at the shark’s presence most of the time. As a result, it was Williams’ score which effectively became associated with the creature.

Two years later, he had his first collaboration with another up-and-coming director, George Lucas, and the famous Star Wars theme was born. The rousing title theme which plays during the ‘opening crawl’ is frequently considered to be the most recognized film score. That year, John Williams received two Oscar nominations – for Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Spielberg and for Star Wars. He won for the latter.

A year later, he composed the heroic introduction to Superman the Movie and received yet another Oscar nomination. I actually feel that the Superman title theme is even more thrilling than that of the Star Wars opening.

In 1980, Williams returned with the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back and created The Imperial March. I don’t think there is any other piece of film music which is so instantly associated with a villain. In recent times, I would say that Henry Jackman’s Magneto theme from X-Men: First Class is the only one that comes close to capturing the essence of a screen villain, but still a distant second to The Imperial March. This produced yet another Oscar nomination for Williams.

Another year, another Oscar nomination; this time for the rousing score of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a collaboration between two of Williams’ favourite film makers – Spielberg and Lucas.

 Williams continued to write scores for all Spielberg’s films thereafter. In fact, I think he gets nominated for an Oscar every time he scores the music for a Spielberg film. He also composed the film score for two other big blockbusters – Home Alone and Harry Potter. But the only piece that I think reached the same heights as his work in the late 70’s is the beautiful string-dominated main theme for Jurassic Park in 1993. 

With 48 Oscar nominations (and 5 wins, the first of which was for Fiddler on the Roof in 1971 and the last one for 1993’s Schindler’s List) , Williams is the 2nd most nominated person after Walt Disney.


Lincoln – a tautly directed ‘political thriller’

With just a few hours to go for the 2013 Oscar Awards, it was perfect timing to watch Lincoln earlier this evening. This is Spielberg’s second historical film dealing with slavery in the 19th century, the other being Amistad (1997). While Amistad is considered to be one of Mr. Spielberg’s well-intentioned but flawed efforts, he gets it absolutely spot on with Lincoln, in no small measure due to the amazing screenplay from Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner is nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and it’s going to be a very close call between Lincoln, Argo, Life or Pi and Silver Linings Playbook – probably the closest and most high profile Oscar battle for adapted screenplay in recent years.

Lincoln plays like a tense police procedural, one could call it a ‘political procedural’, with experts from both parties matching wits against each other, employing the arts and crafts of negotiation, horse-trading and good old-fashioned grandstanding, to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Through it all, we see President Lincoln coaxing, cajoling and at times enforcing his will upon his cabinet members and his political rivals to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end slavery once and for all. At the same time, he must pursue efforts to end the 4-year Civil War, although he realizes that if the War ends, then the general public and the politicians will no longer see a pressing need to pass the Amendment.

Of course, much has been written about Daniel Day-Lewis being a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Best Actor. And true enough, he inhabits Abraham Lincoln’s character like he was born to play this role. But equally, Day-Lewis is supported by a remarkable ensemble performance from perhaps the biggest gathering of character actors in any recent American film. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field have been nominated for Oscars in their respective supporting roles. Sally Field is able to hold her own when sharing the screen with Daniel Day-Lewis…the scene where they argue about their son Robert enlisting as a soldier is filled with electric tension, whereas their opening scene together shows a wonderful underplayed tenderness. Tommy Lee Jones, as expected, seems very comfortable playing yet another bluff and unyielding character. It was worth the price of the ticket just to listen to him insulting various people in the film. But ultimately, his character Thaddeus Stevens is as much a hero of this film as President Lincoln is.

Another performance of note is that of a barely recognizable James Spader playing ‘vote fixer’/lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, along with his two cohorts played by John Hawkes and the ever-likable Tim Blake Nelson. The viewer also gets great satisfaction from seeing the two key Democrat opponents to the Amendment – Fernando Wood (played by Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (played by Peter McRobbie) – get their comeuppance during the final vote…the satisfaction emanating from their outstanding performances as the ‘bad guys’.

I haven’t yet watched the other contenders for Best Picture, especially Argo which seems to be the front-runner. But it’s difficult to imagine any other film topping this in terms of acting performance, dialogue, production values, editing and that all important ‘historical weight’. Spielberg’s productions of course operate like clockwork now with an established team of collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn and costume designer Joanne Johnston, all of whom have been nominated for Oscars. But even if George Clooney walks away with the Oscar for Best Picture (as one of the producers of Argo), I certainly hope that Steven Spielberg will win for Best Director.

One final thought – given the behaviour of Democrats and Republicans today, isn’t it amazing that 150 years ago, it was the Republicans who voted to end slavery and the Democrats who opposed it?

My year-end movie list

It’s that time of the year again when Hollywood rolls out their award contenders as well as some big-budget feel-good blockbusters.

There are 7 movies which are on my must-watch list, another 5 which I will watch, either because they will be Oscar front-runners or because they come from big names, but am not necessarily interested in the subject matter or actors involved. And there are 3 high profile releases which I have no interest whatsoever in (but will probably end up watching anyway at some point). I have also thrown in two films under the heading Guilty Pleasures!

I’m going to start with the 3 big ones which I am not interested in:-

  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 – I have watched the entire series so far. I really enjoyed the first film, but I feel the acting and actors have increasingly looked more suited to a daytime soap than a big-screen film…nothing against it, but not really my cup of tea. And I am now thoroughly irritated with the Kristen Stewart approach to acting which mainly consists of furrowing her brow. No doubt, being the last in the series, the film will have a monster opening weekend. Stephanie Meyer fans can next look forward to the film adaptation of her scifi novel, The Host in March 2013.
  • Life of Pi – I am a huge fan of Ang Lee’s work, but have no interest in a story about a boy named Pi stuck on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don’t see the point at all and the trailer did nothing to help me change my mind. I can understand that Ang Lee would want to push his own boundaries just as he did when he directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk, so I hope for his sake that the film is at least a critical success if not a commercial one.
  • Frankenweenie – I had already covered this in a post soon after the trailer came out. I have watched every single Tim Burton film, except the latest Dark Shadows and his animated 2005 film Corpse Bride, but I haven’t really enjoyed one of his films since Sleepy Hollow back in 1999. And I find his stop-motion animation style too creepy, unless taken in small doses like in Beetlejuice.

Then come the 5 obligatory viewings:-

  • The Master – I have no real interest in this story of a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who creates a quasi-religious cult and has a troubled relationship with his most fervent disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Having said that, I had no real interest in the story of a man who discovered an oil field and had troubled relationships with his son and with an over-zealous preacher, but 2007’s There Will be Blood remains one of my all-time favourite films, so I am certainly going to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort a fair chance, not to mention that it is most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar in February.
  • Cloud Atlas – I was so looking forward to the return of the Wachowski siblings, but was quite underwhelmed by the trailer. This hard-to-describe novel by David Mitchell was always going to be a challenge for any one director, so the producers hired a team of 3 directors, i.e. the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring it to life. I hope that audiences are able to decipher the plot consisting of 6 nested stories beginning on a Pacific Island in the 1850’s, progressing to a distant post-apocalyptic future and then concluding back where it began. All of this spread over 3 hours with each actor playing multiple characters across the nested stories. I so want to like this movie, but something tells me The Wachowskis will continue the search for their first hit since the Matrix trilogy.
  • Les Miserables – Musicals have never been my cup of tea, but they are so few and far between these days that there is always a big buzz when a Moulin Rouge or Hairspray or Chicago is released. I’ve watched them all, but wouldn’t care for a repeat viewing of any of them. In this case, I certainly can’t say “No” to a film starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter…and directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and the outstanding 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams)!
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I am not a Bradley Cooper fan and his presence in films like the Hangover series have done nothing to improve the situation, but I am intrigued by the buzz from this film which won the People’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. I absolutely loved director David O. Russell’s Desert Storm-set action-comedy Three Kings from 1999, but haven’t seen his critically acclaimed boxing drama The Fighter from 2010. This film represents a change of pace, a dramedy, somewhat similar to his I Heart Huckabees from 2004.
  • Killing Them Softly – New Zealander Andrew Dominik has directed just 3 films in his career. The first was Chopper in 2000, which introduced the world to a certain Eric Bana. Then in 2007, he released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt to great critical acclaim. He now reunites Brad Pitt in this crime-thriller which is already generating awards buzz, having been nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Guilty Pleasures

  • Jack Reacher – After the embarrassment of Rock of Ages this summer, Tom Cruise returns to a more comfortable setting in this screen adaptation of crime novel One Shot, one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring former Army Major Jack Reacher. Having said that, I cannot imagine what the studio was thinking when they cast the 5’7” Cruise to play a character described as being 6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest and having ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Why even bother to call it an adaptation of a Jack Reacher novel and risk upsetting the hard core Reacher fans? Anyway, I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I count this film as a guilty pleasure.
  • Taken 2 – In early 2009, Liam Neeson had his biggest career hit as a leading man, playing former CIA operative Bryan Mills who creates mayhem among East European human traffickers after they take his daughter. There is nothing as enjoyable as a good old-fashioned action thriller where the good guy takes apart the bad guys one by one. Fans have been looking forward to seeing more of Neeson’s character, so writer-producer Luc Besson has come up with a new adventure, this time the bad guys specifically target Bryan Mills’ family in revenge for the people he took out in the first movie.

And finally, the 7 movies I am really looking forward to:-

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A few months ago, Peter Jackson delighted his fans with the announcement that he had shot enough footage of The Hobbit story to produce 3 films, not the 2 as originally planned. The films are adapted not just from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also depict incidents from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings books and from Tolkien’s companion-piece publication The Silmarillion, hence the over-abundance of available material and the opportunity to feature characters from LOTR like Galadriel and Legolas. The build-up to the release of the first film has been perfect, with the release of a number of photos of the 13 hobbits comprising the Company of Dwarves and recently the release of an iPad App with lots of goodies. I expect/ hope this will be the biggest box office hit of the fall season and also that it will be as critically acclaimed as the original trilogy. The latest trailers with their four different endings are superb.
  • Django Unchained – I raved about the Django Unchained trailer when it first came out. It’s a new Quentin Tarentino film, not much more needs to be said.
  • Skyfall – I am really looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig chug a can of Heineken in the upcoming Bond film…and of course, eager to see if they can get the Bond franchise on track after the mess that was Quantum of Solace. I am looking forward to some of the gritty storytelling that director Sam Mendes put on show with Road to Perdition back in 2002 (interesting bit of trivia here – Road to Perdition featured a then-unknown Craig playing the cowardly son of mob boss Paul Newman).
  • Lincoln – Daniel Day Lewis brings his famous method acting chops to play the great American President. I expect to see the full bells and whistles which we have come to expect from Spielberg, hopefully it doesn’t become another Amistad. I was surprised at Lincoln’s nasal voice after years of hearing him portrayed with a deep sonorous voice. There has been a fair bit of internet chatter about the voice, which is apparently historically accurate. I think a lot of viewers will really have a problem with this, but hopefully the rest of the movie will be engaging enough.
  • Argo – It’s interesting that Ben Affleck, an actor I have taken such a dislike to, has directed two of the most gripping films in the last 5 years – Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in his native New England. This time around with Argo, he goes across to Iran for a fact-based drama-thriller in which he also acts (and looks quite good in that beard, by the way).
  • Hyde Park on the Hudson – I am a sucker for period dramas – Downton Abbey being my current favourite – and there has been steady buzz building up about this FDR biopic, featuring funnyman Bill Murray as The President and directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame.
  • Flight – This is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. It features Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a hero after safely landing a flight in distress, but the subsequent investigation reveals that he may not be a hero after all. Denzel does this sort of role very well (remember Courage Under Fire?) and I am hoping Zemeckis has not lost his edge after making only motion-capture pictures for the past decade.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s beat-era cult classic finally gets the big screen treatment, directed fittingly by Brazilian ‘road movie expert’ Walter Salles, famous for the touching Central Station and the delightful Motorcycle Diaries. On the Road features a great cast of actors including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams and oh…Kristen Stewart. Well, if I needed a good omen on that last one, it could be the fact that Kristen Stewart played a very short and sweet role in her last road movie Into the Wild. Hopefully the same will be the case here.

Altogether, there is an incredible array of award-winning directors and actors on show in the next few months. Looks like I will have to watch multiple movies on some weekends if I am going to fit in 17 movies from now till end-December!

War Horse – A triumph of (a horse’s) spirit over adversity

I could think of absolutely no reason why I wanted to watch War Horse other than the fact that it is directed by Steven Spielberg.

It is not based on a popular young adult series or comic book or video game (it is based on a children’s novel – but not one with a popular following), it is not a remake or reboot (how I dislike that word) of a popular TV show or a previous film, it cannot really claim to be ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by a true story’, it does not have any famous ‘A-list’ movie stars, is not built around a ‘high concept’ or a ‘surprise ending’ and since it is neither a sci-fi nor fantasy story, the CGI effects in the movie didn’t produce monsters or aliens, only horses.

Of course, wanting to watch a movie because it is directed by Spielberg is not a reason to be sneezed at. War Horse became the 8th Spielberg-directed film to be nominated for a Best Picture and/or Best Director Oscar. He has won twice – for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – both World War II movies. In fact a number of his films have a WWII setting, but this is the first time Spielberg has tackled the World War I period.

War Horse also marks the 6th occasion that Spielberg has directed 2 films in the same year; he first completed this daunting task in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always. He really hit his stride in 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. In 1997, we had The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can came along in 2002 followed by the War of the Worlds-Munich combo in 2005. I actually don’t know of any other directors who have done this even once. As you can see, the trend has been to do one special-effects-driven summer blockbuster followed by a character-driven film released during awards season in December. This time, Spielberg changed the plot slightly by releasing both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within a few weeks of each other at the end of 2011.

I mentioned earlier that War Horse features no A-list Hollywood stars. Actually, none of the actors are from Hollywood; unlike so many other period films, here the characters are all played exclusively by native British and European actors. Of course, the central character of the film is the horse, Joey, whereas the humans are clearly the supporting cast.

Born in Devon, England, Joey is bought at an auction by a poor, drunkard farmer who gets carried away by the beauty of the young thoroughbred when he should have been buying a hard-working draught horse instead. The farmer’s wife is distraught but his teenage son Albert cannot believe his luck and promises to rear the horse and somehow turn around the fortunes of the family.

Of course, Spielberg (and American cinema in general) specializes in milking this sort of underdog situation and there are some rousing moments, accompanied by appropriate John Williams score, which establishes the bond between Albert and Joey. Unfortunately, it is 1914 and war is soon declared between England and Germany. The farmer, desperate for money, sells Joey to a Captain in the British Army. Albert arrives at the marketplace too late to stop the sale, but Captain Nicholls (played by Tom Hiddleston who will play arch-villain Loki in the upcoming blockbuster The Avengers) promises him that he will treat the sale as a lease, and will return Joey to Albert at the end of the war. Joey is trained as a cavalry horse and is transported to mainland Europe. As the tides of war ebb and flow, Joey changes hands from the British Army to the German side, then briefly to French civilians before falling back into German hands again.

Meanwhile back home, Albert receives news that Captain Nicholls has been killed in action and realizes that his horse is now missing and perhaps dead. In desperation, he enlists in the Army and is sent to fight in the trenches of France. Anyone who has seen Spielberg’s war movies (including the HBO series he produced like Band of Brothers and The Pacific) know that this man can bring alive the horrors of war like no other contemporary filmmaker. In the second act of the film, we are exposed to these horrors and their effects on both men and horses. Some of the scenes, particularly where we see the animals suffering, are almost unbearable. The story shows soldiers on both sides conscious of this suffering; some reluctantly shrug it off as a consequence of war, while others make an effort to minimize the impact on the animals. It is certainly refreshing to see German soldiers not depicted as evil thugs and this is brought alive during a memorable scene involving Joey, a British and a German officer in the middle of the trenches under a white flag of truce.

There are several dramatic and emotional moments in the final act before Albert and Joey are finally united and return to the farm under a blood red sunset…perhaps signifying that they will forever live with the taint of war.

The acting is universally top-notch from some of the best character actors in England and Europe. As I mentioned earlier, Joey is the star of this movie, so while there are many speaking parts, these roles usually last for just a few minutes…as if the human characters have been created only to play a part in Joey’s extraordinary journey. As always, Spielberg’s usual filmmaking group delivers the goods – John Williams tugs at your heartstrings with his music, Janusz Kaminski is at the top of his game behind the camera and Michael Kahn’s editing helps the two and a half hours go by quickly.

In the end, the overriding sense I got out of the story is that there is some good in everyone and given a chance, that positive spirit will rise to the surface in the face of adversity. To be reminded of that truth became, ultimately, the best reason to watch War Horse.